city_limits_bookStarting early this century, poet and professor David Oates set out to walk the boundary line that Oregon drew around the city of Portland decades ago to concentrate its development and discourage sprawl. What is today called “the New Urbanism” is not new in Portland: it’s been part of the political process since l973.

As Oates writes in a forward to a book he recently published about his adopted state’s experiment in urban utopianism:

We hope to grow in, and in some places, up. To get richer in connections and cleverness — to get deeper — instead of wider, flatter, and shallower.

That simplicity of language and depth of thought is part of the charm of City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary. Like Thoreau, to whom Oates alludes in his first chapter — titled “Where I Walked, What I Walked For” — Oates has a knack for linking a bold action, such as walking over 250 miles around the city, to a self-deprecating description.

Oates lightly mocks himself for getting lost, for his fear of dog attacks in redneck neighborhoods, and even for his own occasional tendency to stereotype people. This willingness to reveal his flaws helps the reader trust Oates’ discussion of the issues raised by Portland’s boundary (known as the UGB, or Urban Growth Boundary). Oates also dares include in his book brief essays from others, including philosopher/writer Kathleen Deen Moore and winemaker Eric Lemelson, as well as a planner, a landscape architect, and even a developer — the sort of voices not usually heard in “environmental” books.

Most surprising of all, on his walks Oates occasionally encounters legendary figures — such as John Muir, Paul Shepherd, Italo Calvino — who just happen to have inspired Oates. These ghostly figures turn out to be quite chatty, and yet utterly themselves, giving the book a jolt of originality to match its open-mindedness. Each encounter with these ghosts has a wistful quality; one can tell that Oates hates to see them go.

Calvino especially inspires, with his discussion of the city of the labyrinthian spiral, the city of multiple desires, the city “that fades before your eyes,” he tells Oates. “Like all of Portland’s inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another … all the rest of the city is invisible. Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased.”

It’s a wonderful, original, eye-opening book. Although sometimes the multiple introductions and voices give it a patchwork quilt quality, in the end the book resembles the city Oates obviously adores: vibrantly alive, defiantly progressive, fearlessly contentious. For Grist, Oates kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Portland and its attempts to control its development:

KS: I loved your “encounters” with famous writers such as John Muir, Paul Shepherd, and Italo Calvino as you walked around Portland’s city limits. Are there present-day figures who inspire you as well?

DO: You bet. Some of them did walk with me around the Boundary — like Metro [regional government] President David Bragdon, and philosopher/nature-writer Kathleen Dean Moore. They both spent a day with me and contributed short pieces to the book. Many others whose work I admire, whom I’d ask if I had the chance: T. Allen Comp, an artist who works in restoration of ecologies and communities; ecologist Willaim R. Jordan III (author of Sunflower Forest); novelist Arundhati Roy; physicist/anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva; Seattle architect Steven Holl; and — because her work about walking is good, but her work about writing in this time of political darkness is great (Hope in the Dark) Rebecca Solnit. Check them all out!

KS: This is a book about Portland’s attempt to stay green and vibrant, but the book concludes with a statewide vote against the boundary that earlier voters drew around the city to prevent sprawl. Can you briefly bring us up to date on the current status of the boundary?

DO: The 2004 vote was a disaster on many fronts, wasn’t it? Here in Oregon an anti-planning initiative won easily. It dismantled our 30-year planning process and upheld a narrow concept of individual property rights — an individual owner could do almost anything, could screw neighbors and community with impunity. Plans immediately appeared for tract housing, even gravel mines, in the middle of agricultural lands and mountain forests! It was as if each owner were an island or a separate planet: the full tunnel vision of conservative individualism.

That measure won by using nice-sounding language of “fairness” on the ballot title. Voters didn’t look deeper. But over the next three years, rural folks (especially) saw exactly what laissez-faire development looked like, and didn’t want it. Voters reversed the judgment in 2007 with a 62 percent “yes” to restore statewide planning and limits (with improved “fairness” to redress some specific problems in the former system). We’re back on track and Oregon will stay Oregon: housing and strip development will not spread out over the countryside. We’ll continue building compact urban places to live, surrounded by intact agricultural lands, forests, and open space.

KS: You smartly moved here from California to Portland many years ago. Did you run into resentment at that time, and if I was to move from SoCal with my familiy, would I encounter resentment now?

DO: Nah. Individuals are welcome here, especially if they bring Oregon values: don’t just think about yourself and your bank account, consider (and value) the natural and human communities that surround and support you. The whole “Don’t Californicate Oregon” thing is really a laugh — but like a lot of laughs, it holds a truth. Don’t come here with weird government-hating hyperindividualism.

Portland’s successful experiment in urban planning and civic consciousness has produced an interesting ancillary effect: people keep moving here and bringing their equity with them. This has helped keep our economy steady, almost recession-proof (housing prices in Portland, after climbing for years, have refused to “dip” over the last’s year real-estate downturn, for example). Making a livable place attracts people and increases demand. Locals sometimes complain about the price run-up … yet Portland’s housing prices are still the bargain of the West Coast.